Families told to accept higher food prices as No10 hosts farm to fork summit

'Helping everyone will not be easy': Chris Choi reports on Number 10's food summit

By Lewis Denison, ITV News Westminster Producer

UK consumers have been told they must accept higher food prices until the government overhauls the supply system amid warnings from farmers that homegrown food production could soon cease to exist.

As two separate investigations look into why UK food prices are so high, Rishi Sunak hosted a meeting with industry leaders in a bid to identify ways to reduce costs.

The PM is held discussions with representatives from across the food sector, such as retailers, food suppliers and farmers - including TV's Kaleb Cooper from Clarkson's Farm - who were all in Downing Street for the "Farm to Fork Summit".

While Kaleb told ITV News that supermarkets are "probably" charging too much, the UK chair of Nature Friendly Farming Network said ahead of the summit that Britons are "going to have to accept higher prices" until food security changes are made.

Martin Lines said the food supply chain must "recognise and deliver" rewards to farmers for producing food "or it wont be there in the future".

"Farmers will change what they produce and move away from food production," he warned.

'We're going to have to accept higher prices', says Nature Friendly Farming Network chair

A "perfect storm" is threatening the industry, a report by the National Farmers' Union (NFU), NatWest and WWF-UK, has said, blaming climate change, post-pandemic supply chain disruption and the war in Ukraine as factors crippling farming businesses.

NFU President Minette Batters told ITV News she will be urging the prime minister to call in investigation "into what's going on" with the UK food supply chain.

"We know that consumers are facing these higher prices - we want to see what is going on because it is certainly not coming back to farmers and growers," she said on her way into Downing Street.

With a hint of optimism, she added that if those at the meeting can "find a solution to a lot of the challenges" facing farmers, "that will hopefully help with cost of living".

Charlie Ireland (left) and farming contractor Kaleb Cooper, from Clarkson's Farm, outside 10 Downing Street Credit: PA

UK food prices face three separate probes

If a new investigation were to be launched, it would be the third looking into UK food prices.

There's one being run in Parliament by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee and another by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

EFRA said it would examine "issues throughout the food supply chain from farm to fork", to assess how profits and risks are shared. It will also look into external factors on the supply chain, such as imported food and global commodity prices.

Robert Goodwill, the Conservative chair of the committee said MPs want to "get to the bottom of what’s going on".

The CMA plans to investigate whether “any failure in competition” is leaving consumers paying higher grocery and fuel prices than they should be.

Although it says it has not seen evidence of specific competition concerns “at this stage,” the body added it was “important to be sure that weak competition is not adding to the problems”.

Food prices rose at their highest rate in 45 years

It comes as the prices of food and non-alcoholic drinks rose at the fastest rate in more than 45 years, according to the Office for National Statistics – with the increasing costs being a major driver of the cost-of-living crisis.

The UK currently imports more than half of its fruit and vegetables, and recent shortages on supermarket shelves have exposed the risks associated with relying on imports.

Last week, the Bank of England said food prices have stayed higher for longer than expected, partly due to Russia’s war in Ukraine and poor harvests in some European countries, ramping up the cost of living for households across the UK.

Which? analysed April prices on more than 26,000 food and drink products at all the major UK supermarkets and found that some meat, yoghurts and vegetables have doubled in price compared to a year ago.

One stark example is the rising cost of onions at Morrisons. Twelve months ago a pack of four brown onions was 65p - it has now rised by 90.8% to to £1.24.

NFU President Ms Batters said there is a "level of inflation now that is baked in" but supermarkets will soon "be able to look at ways that they can keep the price down".

She warned that any drop in food production "only creates further inflation at the consumer end, so we need to keep volume of production up so we don't drive inflation".

A level of inflation is now baked in, says NFU president

The environment, food and rural affairs secretary, Therese Coffey, speaking after the summit, said it was an "important" discussion on what how to "make sure that we get on with farmers producing the best British food possible".

When asked about families struggling to buy the basics, the politician added: “People are working very hard to try and make sure that we have an affordable, sustainable and resilient food supply chain and how that helps with customers.

“But of course, the government is supporting people on the lowest incomes with the household Support Fund.

"Payments have been going out to people in order to help with that particular challenge. More broadly we’re seeing changes to the energy costs, seeing them start to come down, that is critical for the food industry as well.”

Mr Sunak's spokesman, asked if ministers had pressed supermarkets to cut prices, said: “We do want to make sure that retailers are passing on any savings they find.

“We recognise that they themselves are finding it a challenging period, given the global inflation pressures we’re seeing.

“For our part, we’re providing huge amounts of support to families, paying half of energy bills and there is further support through the household support fund and other means.”

A billion less eggs than 2019

Issues with UK food supply were laid bare earlier this year when fluctuating weather conditions in Spain, first a cold-snap than a drought, led to shortages here which saw supermarkets ration salad items.

A lack of peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces showed just how much the UK supply chain relies on imports from abroad.

But that does not yet appear to have boosted home grown production.

UK production of tomatoes and cucumbers is expected to fall to the lowest level since records began in 1985, according to the the Andersons Centre.

The NFU's Ms Batters says egg production has "hit its lowest level" with one billion fewereggs being produced now compared to 2019.

And an NFU survey has found 40% of beef farmers and 36% of sheep farmers are planning to reduce the numbers in their herds, with input prices cited as the core reason.

What are the solutions?

Ms Batters highlighted two easy fixes which she says would deliver a fast change for farmers, first to fill the huge number of vacancies and second to bring energy costs down.

Urging the prime minister to extend the seasonal worker visa scheme, she said: "We simply do not have enough people who are unemployed here at the moment to do the jobs [in the farming sector] that are available."

She said there are "huge shortages" of fruitpickers, butchers and dairy workers - roles that before Brexit were often filled by foreign workers.

And to bring down energy costs she is urging Mr Sunak to extend the Energy and Trade Intensive Industry (ETII) discount scheme to farmers.

The scheme provides a set discount on 70% of the gas and electricity used by businesses, if wholesale prices exceed certain thresholds but primary food production is not included in the list of activities eligible for ETII discounts.

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Ahead of the Summit, government confirmed a range of measures it said would help strengthen the long-term resilience and sustainability of the sector and provide greater stability for farmers.

Among those was an announcement that 45,000 visas will be available again to the horticulture sector next year, enabling them to plan ahead for the picking season.  

Other policies include protecting UK food and production standards in trade deals, and making it easier for farmers to diversify their incomes by repurposing their buildings to use as shops.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “I will always back British farmers, and I pay tribute to their hard work and dedication all year round which keeps shelves stocked and food on our tables.

“Supporting our farmers and food producers must, and always will be, at the heart of our plans to grow the economy and build a more prosperous country.

“That’s why I’m proud to host this summit, and working together, I’m determined to build resilience, strengthen our food security and champion the best of British at home and overseas.”

Will the UK train homegrown fruitpickers?

Suella Braverman has suggested the UK should train its own workforce of fruit pickers and lorry drivers rather than import foreign labour, in a speech on immigration delivered to the new National Conservatism Conference on Monday.

The home secretary said the UK needs "to get overall immigration numbers down and we mustn’t forget how to do things for ourselves".

She added: "There is no good reason why we can’t train up enough HGV drivers, butchers or fruit pickers."

Mr Sunak told his Cabinet that supporting farmers is not about “some nostalgic vision of the UK’s rural past”, Downing Street said, "but about growing the economy, creating more jobs and building the UK’s food security".

Asked whether that meant Britons being trained to pick fruits, as Home Secretary Suella Braverman has suggested, Mr Sunak’s spokesman said: “No. He was simply making the point that supporting the countryside, supporting farmers, is not simply to hark back to the past or a more rural Britain.

“It is vital to everyone in the UK, both in terms of food security and growing the economy, creating more jobs.”